Minor Pro Sports Having Rough Time

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Continental Basketball Association changed courts last month, moving from the hardwood court to the bankruptcy court. The Cleveland Lumberjacks changed owners last month, going from one local owner to the remaining nine that comprise the International Hockey League.

These are just two recent examples of how the business of minor pro sports has reached the end of its expansion era. There are others. Franchises are shutting down in the Central and Western pro hockey leagues, a pair of second-tier leagues that are talking merger for their survival. The United Hockey League, which was talking growth just a year ago, is losing a franchise to bankruptcy, and three American Hockey League executives are saying their clubs may go out of business soon unless they receive some financial help.

So what is happening in the industry? Natural selection, a capitalistic-type of Darwinism, is taking over — as minor league sports has entered the mature stage of its business cycle.

"It's a pretty natural occurrence, particularly with these kinds of businesses which are very consumer oriented and really community based. I don't think you're seeing so much of a consolidation as you're seeing a maturation process. These businesses are coming of age," said Lew Chamberlin, co-founder and co-owner of the West Michigan Whitecaps.

Chamberlin said his team, which begins its eighth season of Midwest Baseball League play on April 7, is in that stage. Although still a popular local attraction, Chamberlin feels part of the franchise's shine has dulled a bit over the past seven years as some customers have taken a "been there, done that" attitude to the business.

"We're not the new game in town any more, and I think that could be said about the other sports franchises as well," he said.

But even though ticket sales may have slipped for all the local teams, Chamberlin solidly feels that one vital factor hasn't. He said the value that the sports franchises offer customers and the community still gets recognized.

"In our marketing efforts when we get out to talk to people to renew our advertising and our season tickets, I get a very strong signal that people really recognize and value what the Whitecaps provide. And I think that is still there. But it may not be there with the urgency and the fervor that you had in the first year or the first couple of years," he said.

"So I think there is bound to be, as with any business — but particularly with a business that is so sort of publicly oriented, if you will — a point where you level off to a certain extent," he added.

IHL Commissioner Doug Moss also feels that the value a sports franchise adds to a community is vital, and was the main reason why the league stepped in to temporarily take over the Lumberjacks. Now he feels he has to reestablish the value the franchise offers until a new owner can be found.

"We'll be spending a lot of time talking to and listening to our fans and others in the community to find out what's on their minds," said Moss after IHL Cleveland LLC assumed ownership of the Lumberjacks. "We'll continue to work hard to give them great value for their entertainment dollar."

But like the stock market, the minor pro sports market has turned bearish after a lengthy bullish period in the 1990s and Chamberlin feels it's up to the owners to turn that situation around.

"It's incumbent upon us as operators to keep the product fresh, to make sure we maintain the value, that we do a better job of marketing and reaching out to the community," said Chamberlin. "Because just by the nature of things, it's going to become more difficult to command the attention of the community."

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